Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old Internet genius, was eulogized on Tuesday as a person who wanted to make the world better but was hounded into killing himself by harsh government policies.
Swartz was “killed by the government,” his father, Robert Swartz, said at the service at Central Avenue Synagogue in Highland Park, Ill., according to the Chicago Sun-Times. “He was killed by the government, and MIT betrayed all of its basic principles,” he said.
Facing the possibility of a long prison sentence if convicted of charges that he illegally downloaded millions of academic journal articles, Swartz hanged himself in his New York apartment Friday. The death of one of the founders of news and entertainment website Reddit and a longtime activist for an open Internet has ignited outrage among many in the electronic community who view him as a martyr to government prosecution.
“Today is the funeral of Aaron Swartz, who contributed so much to the launch of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and our technology during our first 20 months,” the group said in an email to reporters. “His suicide followed an over-zealous prosecution for a crime with no victims -- by a Justice Department that has yet to prosecute the Wall Street bankers who destroyed our economy and harmed millions of lives. Our hearts go out to Aaron’s family and partner.”
Swartz was accused of stealing articles from JSTOR, an academic database at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Swartz was a longtime activist for an open Internet and it brought him into conflict with prosecutors who accused him of 13 felonies.
Although his indictment on 13 felony counts was announced by U.S. Atty. Carmen M. Ortiz in Massachusetts, accounts from Swartz’s supporters say much of the behind-the-scenes negotiations were handled by Assistant U.S. Atty. Stephen P. Heymann.
“Steve Heymann had shown no interest in justice,” Swartz’s girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, 31, told the Los Angeles Times on Monday. “His only interest was a notch on his belt, another young kid he could claim to put away. But I think as the case wore on, as it became clearer how weak his case was, he became more and more of a bully.”
She added, “I also hope that, frankly, Steve Heymann should lose his job. Aaron’s not the first person he’s tried to do this to. And MIT needs to implement serious policy changes, because MIT could have stopped this. They could have stopped this cold in its tracks by saying they were not the victims of a crime, and they didn’t do that.”
Swartz's family posted on a memorial website: “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The U.S. attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.”
MIT President L. Rafael Reif announced Sunday that he was ordering a review of the university’s actions in the case. “Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT,” Reif said in an email to the university community.
“Aaron wanted so badly to change the world,” said Stinebrickner-Kauffman, choking back tears at the service. “He wanted it more than money. He wanted it more than fame.
“When things are hard -- and he said it is the important things that are hard, you have to lean into the pain. With his trial and what he is facing the last two years, he finally fell into the pain," Stinebrickner-Kauffman said, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Times Staff Writer Matt Pearce contributed to this report.